Transforming Culture Symposium: The Future
Plenary Session #6: Jeremy Begbie
What is a vision of the evangelical Church in the year 2058?
Where was the evangelical Church with the arts back in 1958? What movements, trends, forces ought we to be aware of? What concerns face us? What are the hopes and possibilities that lie before us?
The sons of Issachar of 1 Chronicles 12:32 were men who understood the times, knew what to do, and then did it. Our desire here is to help pastors and artists become far-sighted Christians. We want to understand the spirit of the age, not become married to it. We want to be immersed in the culture but not trapped inside it. We want to be present to our contemporary times, careful students of history, and keen observers of the cultural currents—social, political, technological, commercial, religious and so on—that carry us, sometimes forcefully, into our common future.
Our desire is not only to learn from our past mistakes but to anticipate the brokennesses that lie ahead so that we can be clear-headed and nimble-footed in our gospel work. How can we as the church release our artists to make shalom-bearing art with the weighty wisdom of past generations and the welfare of future generations in mind?
associate principle, Ridley Hall, Cambridge University; associate director, Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts
The Talk: (those reading this transcription need to imagine a warm English accent, as if Hugh Grant were a theologian; I've also tried to transcribe the effect of his playing the piano throughout his talk. This may feel cumbersome to read through, but I decided to leave the notes in for my favorite music lovers...they know who they are!)
It's a huge privilege to be at this rich, rich feast. I'm learning a vast amount. Whoever you are and wherever you've come from, you will not leave this place the same, I am sure and that is all to the good.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as thier God. They will be His peoples. And God Himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more. For the first things have passed away. Revelation 21
(imagine Jeremy Begbie spontaneously erupting into Prokofiev's Seventh Piano Sonata on the grand piano that had been placed center stage. )
This piece of music burst onto the Russian musical scene in 1943. A subversive piece in it's time. Prokofiev has just returned to Russia and he brings with him the edgy, modernist techniques he has learned in America and Europe -- driving pulse, cross-rhythms, daring dissonance. This is music for the future, he believes. Full of promise for his own country. Subversive, yes, but a hopeful subversion.
And that's what I think of when I think of David Taylor. My first encounter with David Taylor was in the library at Regent College. I was working quietly when I heard a commotion behind me. There was a red-haired student performing a perfect handstand in front of the reception desk. The resident subversive, I thought, every institution has one. The chronic exception. Just as well I don't have to meet him. When God scheduled our first appointment, I soon found, he was a subversive I could like. How could I resist his bouyant, infectious twinkle? He specialized in subversion, and still does. But a hopeful subversion.
That's what pastors and artists should specialize in, a hopeful subversion. David's asked me to look to the future. Outline a vision for the church and the arts for the year 2058. It's a pretty safe thing for me to do, actually, because I doubt even David will be around in 2058 to prove me wrong.
The commonest way Christians build a vision for the future is to think from the present to the future. Like all futurists, we survey our present culture, pick up the trends and currents that arch into the future, politics, arts, whatever. Then we tell ourselves we need to be riding those currents. We need to surf the waves that roll into post-post-modernity and enjoy the delicious thrill of being permanently relevant. Everlastingly cool.
Now, of course, there's truth there. But notice how often the movement is simply from the present and to the future. And think how easily it leads to grim resignation, The present culture's going this way. There's nothing the Church can do about it. In fact, there's nothing anybody can do about it. Go with the flow. Do what you can. Or if it's not that, it's triumphalism. Culture is like this, but we're going to take it for the Lord. And artists are going to be at the head of the liberating army.
This morning I want to suggest that the New Testament gives a very different feel. When these writers want a vision for the future, they don't move from the present to the future. They move from the future to the present. From a vision of what God will finally do, as in Revelation 21 when God will dwell with His people in the New Jerusalem. When the bereaved will dance and the victims laugh and the voiceless sing. A future that's been promised and guaranteed, previewed, indeed, in the raising of Jesus from the dead. And they seem to think, these writers, that future can start now. They're telling us their lives are being breathed into by the breath of God, reenergized by God's Spirit. So they can start to live the life of the future right now. The Holy Spirit brings the future into the present, churning and swirling the status quo. Subversive, yes, but a hopeful subversion.
If we want a vision for the arts and the Church for the next fifty years, I suggest this is where we begin. Not with our present, but with God's future interrupting, erupting, into our present through God's Spirit. Only then we ask, Well, what could the next fifty years be like?
What happens when the Spirit comes from the future? And what could this mean for the arts and our churches over the next half century?
First, the Spirit unites the unlike. In Revelation 21 we hear of the new Jerusalem, the people of the new heaven, or should I say peoples as does this translation? Because the word, in fact, is plural in verse three. We're told that God will dwell with His peoples. John is picking up on the promise of Isaiah and others who said that many nations will stream to worship God. Ethnic multiplicity, the community of the unlike. Such is the work of the Spirit.
Why do I begin here? Because much Protestantism, in particular, has a craving for homogeneity, sameness. With a huge stress on the decision of the individual now embedded in a consumerist culture, we get the strange idea church is something I choose the way I choose a doctor or dentist, one that suits my needs and causes a minimum of pain. So, of course, we end up with the community not of the unlike, but the like -- the community I like.
And the arts get sucked into this. We find arty types creating their own churches where we can remind ourselves of how truly extraordinary we are. Or we make churches that revolve around music, usually one brand of it. Churches that cater to dance, or more likely, churches that don't. Churches that specialize in video art and churches that specialize in hideous art. A friend of mine describes evangelicals as the only Christians who can do bad taste with style.
Homogeneous zones of culture or psychological preference replicating the open consumerism that surrounds us. How does the Holy Spirit subvert all this? Supremely by throwing us alongside the stranger or, indeed, the enemy and taking us both to the foot of the Cross. If we grant unity anywhere else but the Cross, we are denying the Gospel.
What might that look like for us? Well, some of it is happening here. This is a symposium of the unlike, artists and pastors along with the great others who are unlike anyone. [during the symposium the name "the great others" was used to describe those who did not consider themselves as an "artist" or "pastor"]
Artists and pastors, of course, have much in common, thank God, but they tend to feel at ease with different langugages. To generalize wildly, pastors tend to feel most at home with the language of declarative statement. Jesus is God and man. God is one in three. Your pastor was probably trained in this kind of language more than than any other. Your average artist generally feels more at ease with the language of illusion and suggestion, light and shade, rhythm and sound. So put pastors and artists together and it can be like the pilgrims on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, mutual incomprehension and at its worst, open hostility. Jew, Gentile [imagine here a quick piano tune from Westside Story in reference to David Taylor's plenary session] Jets and Sharks.
But what happens at Pentecost, do you remember? The Spirit does not give them the same language, that's the point. Chapter 2, verse 6, 8 and 11 - three times we're told - the crowd heard the Galileean disciples in their own tongues. The Spirit translates so they can understand. The great sculptor Henry Moore was once quizzed by the vicar about the process of sculpting a madonna and child, Do you believe in the Church's dogma about the Virgin Mary and all that?he was asked. Moore replied, I don't know, but I think it is through art that we artists can come to understand your theology.
(Madonna and Child - Henry Moore, 1943)
Pastors, you need to recognize that your artists may well access the Gospel most readily through the grain of marble, through cadence and meter, light and shade, illusion and suggestion. And they will likely need these things in order to understand some of your langugage. Artists, you need to recognize that pastors often work in languages you may not find congenial, but which have proved necessary for the health of the Church. And they need these languages often to understand what you are doing.
During the last couple of days the Spirit has been busy subverting our love of homogeneity, uniting the unlike and translating so we can hear each other in our own tongues. And, from this an energy will be released we can hardly begin to imagine. Hopeful subversion.
Now in the Prokofiev piece I played at the beginning is absolutely full of this, this combination of rhythms. The first two bars sounds like this [he plays] and that's it. What's going on there? The whole beast is built in seven beats to the bar. You can divide seven up in various ways. One way is 3+2+2 which is what we get in the first bar. [he plays first bar] Second, 2+3+2. [he plays] The left hand splits the seven into 2+2+3 [he plays] and the second bar in the left hand splits it differently again. So we've got an incompatablity between the right and the left. [he plays]
But it's more interesting than that, because if you take the left hand itself, has counter rhythms working against the natural rhythms. Take for instance, rests, so you get the left hand actually offbeat. [he plays] Also, you've got this strong beat all the way through. You can hear the great thrust that comes on the second main beat (or the fourth minor beat) of that left hand. So you have two subversions of the rhythm from the left hand alone. We have incompatability between hands and within the left hand. And that's only within the first four seconds. This is known as polyrhythm and an extraordinary energy is released through it not otherwise possible.
It's the kind of energy you'll hear on this CD from South Africa. A few years ago, two singing groups met in that country. The one a Renaissance choir from the University of Oxford, the other a Gospel choir from South Africa. They argued and talked and sang together. They recorded tracks from live worship in churches, studios and the open air and, eventually, they made a CD. In one track, African cross-rhythms meet the cross-rhythms of 1960's minimalist music to create an amazing polyrhythmic extravaganza. But just as striking is what we might call polystylism, that is many styles, or different styles together. In this track we hear a chant for peace written during the apartheid era over which the Oxford singers weave a Gregorian chant set in of the agnus dei, the last line being Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace. And this is, then, improvised freely. [he plays clip]
Now think of all the unlikes that we are hearing together there. A chant for peace from the political world along with a chant for peace from the liturgical world. A political chant given new gospel depth through the liturgical words and visa-versa. Two radically different musical traditions in conversation without loss of integrity. Two ethnic groups from radically different backgrounds with a history of violence. An energy is released through musical sound not otherwise possible. This, of course, is what the early church found when combined Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. Artist. Pastor.
My vision for next fifty years? Artists and pastors and the great others discovering the Spirit's unity of the unlike.
My Creator -- our Creator -- inspires deep gratitude and awe from the innermost and truest places in me. This seems to be an evidence of deep calling to deep as the Holy Spirit breathed through the words, music and visual art that Mr. Begbie used in this talk. I am a different person after listening which also means I am held accountable to these learnings and exhortations.
May it be so.